Monday, December 2, 1996
Stadiums: Decision of lifetime
Sites could steer course of downtown development

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Detroit's plan for downtown stadiums for the Lions and Tigers would put them in the entertainment district. | ZOOM |
Not long ago, people didn't expect so much of sports stadiums. They should have easy access, host a good game and look impressive on TV.

But that has changed in the past decade. With the public sometimes picking up two-thirds of the cost, taxpayers now expect stadiums to serve as tourism magnets, neighborhood revitalizers and
city signatures on the national map.

That's what makes the stakes so high as Hamilton County grapples with where to put its two new stadiums. At $544 million or more of public investment in downtown, it's the biggest urban development project the city will see in a lifetime, political leaders say.

One choice is to put the Reds and Bengals stadiums on the riverfront. The other would keep the Bengals on the riverfront and the Reds uptown about 12 blocks to an asphalt triangle known as Broadway Commons, a collection of parking lots, small businesses and abandoned buildings bounded by Interstate 71, the county jail and Over-the-Rhine.

It's the most local of decisions, yet where stadiums were located in other cities can teach valuable lessons:

  • In Cleveland, the city gambled a baseball/basketball complex on an undeveloped sea of parking lots on downtown's southern edge. Today it's a success, but it took promoters a winter in suburbia on the rubber chicken circuit to convince people it was safe to come to the center city. (A football stadium for a new team is under way on the site of the old Cleveland Stadium.)

  • Baltimore spent 15 years developing its Inner Harbor before it nestled the Orioles' Camden Yards into a nearby railroad yard. Not to tamper with the huge success, the city will build a new Ravens' football stadium next door.

  • Denver explored stadium sites for a year, inviting exhaustive public comment, before choosing a location on the outskirts of the business district, which has blossomed with art galleries, restaurants and apartments.

  • The Detroit Lions are moving into town from their suburban football Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., to build alongside the Tigers' construction site in the thriving Fox Theatre entertainment district downtown. Voters recently approved three casinos for the area.

For a lesson in non-development, there's a closer example: Cinergy Field. The former Riverfront Stadium, now 26 years old, is surrounded by a moat of parking lots and produce warehouses.

''Nothing's been done on that land in 30 years,'' said Mike Brown, general manager of the Bengals and a co-tenant of Cinergy Field with Reds baseball.

People expected less of stadiums built in that era, such as Three Rivers in Pittsburgh or Veterans in Philadelphia.

''In the late '60s and early '70s, when the flying saucer stadiums were developed, all they wanted was a platform to play the game in and get on television,'' said Tom Chema, who directed the sports facilities development in Cleveland and is now consulting for the Bengals and others.

''They are these imposing, concrete structures that really aren't friendly, and they are separated by all this parking,'' he said. The problem is made worse in Cincinnati, he said, because Fort Washington Way separates downtown from the riverfront. ''I think we had this theory that people won't walk in the United States, so we built that way. That was the suburban shopping mall model.''

Tad Shultz, a sports facilities designer for HNTB Sports Architects in Kansas City, Mo., said, ''A stadium itself is like anything else. No single entity you put in a city is going to revitalize it.''

A chance for change

Cincinnati is preparing to change all that. Exactly how to go about it is the subject of passionate debate - at least as passionate as the March referendum on whether to raise the Hamilton County sales tax to build two new stadiums.

It is intensifying as a decision nears. In mid-December, Urban Design Associates (UDA) of Pittsburgh is to recommend two options to Hamilton County commissioners: an ideal choice and an option reusing Cinergy Field for baseball. Commissioners should announce a decision by the end of the year.

Prior to the recommendation, commissioners are expecting a report from UDA subcontractor ZHA, examining the economic impact of stadiums in other cities, commission President Bob Bedinghaus said.

Two of the three commissioners, Mr. Bedinghaus and Guy Guckenberger, said they will abide by UDA's recommendation. Commissioner John Dowlin has come out in favor of Broadway Commons for baseball.

Broadway Commons advocates say Cleveland and Denver most closely achieve their ideal. Both built on the outskirts of downtown, and the formerly depressed neighborhoods are thriving.

Jacobs Field and Gund Arena in Cleveland, also known as the Gateway complex, were built on a site that held pay parking lots, charging as little as $1.20 a day. Of the 13 buildings, were vacant.

''It was kind of a no-man's land,'' said Mr. Chema, former head of the Gateway Economic Development Corp.

The image was hard to shake. During the winter of 1994, before Jacobs Field's opening day, Mr. Chema and Bob DiBiasio, the Indians public relations director, took a road trip of suburban Cleveland, speaking to 29 groups.

''All the questions were about parking, traffic and safety,'' Mr. Chema said. ''We had people in Cleveland who hadn't been downtown in 30 years.''

The crowds have swelled to 5.5 million people a year, which has encouraged new restaurants, arcades, bars and shops.

Most surprising is that people are beginning to call the neighborhood home for the first time since the turn of the century, Mr. Chema said. About 750 housing units are planned, and nearly 70 are occupied to date.

Stadium planner Mr. Shultz said Gateway works because there are walkways everywhere - between the arena and the ball field, between Gateway and the city streets. ''Most cities don't go that far,'' Mr. Shultz said. ''They bring in a stadium and fix up the sidewalks around a stadium, but that's really it.''

Denver's diamond

City and club officials spent more than a year determining the best location around Denver for Coors Field, which opened in 1995 and offers fans a scenic view of the Rocky Mountains.

It is nestled between two distinct neighborhoods.

One is LoDo - or Lower Downtown - and parallels the third base line. Immediately north of the city center, it is a historic district that had attracted a small number of offices, art galleries and residential lofts.

Along the first-base line was ''a neighborhood that's fair to say was skid row,'' said Tom Gleason, former deputy director of the Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District, which oversaw financing, design, construction and leasing.

One key to turning it around was stinginess with parking spaces. The city built just 4,700 parking spaces especially for baseball for the 50,000-seat stadium. Within walking distance downtown are 35,000 to 40,000 more spaces.

Instead of turning people off, the walk has turned on neighborhoods on both sides of Coors Field, Mr. Gleason said. The ballpark traffic, as in Cleveland, has encouraged both retail development and residences.

Denver also bolstered the ballpark boom with $220 million in public spending on the central business district.

During the stadium development, government officials and the Rockies consulted regularly with five citizens' groups that were convened as standing committees.

''You put in a lot more effort'' working with citizens, Mr. Gleason said. ''But in the end, people have a sense of ownership ... and that translates into tickets.''

Baltimore bonanza

Baltimore's stadium development is closer to the Cincinnati option of two stadiums on the riverfront.

Camden Yards, home to Orioles baseball, is set near the water, six blocks away from the city's historic central business district. The ballpark and surrounding Inner Harbor, where visitors ride water taxis to restaurants and nightspots, have attracted international acclaim.

During the ballpark's inaugural 1992 season, out-of-town fans spent $36 million at Baltimore hotels, stores, restaurants and attractions, according to Baltimore Development Corp., a non-profit development arm of the city.

Next, the stadium authority will build a Ravens football stadium, home to the former Cleveland Browns, close enough to share a parking lot with baseball.

Charles C. Graves III, the city's planning director, said Baltimore's top considerations for stadium siting were access to an expressway, adequate parking and walking distance to downtown hotels.

On game days, especially football Sundays, downtown parking spaces are free of office workers, Mr. Graves pointed out. He added that land is limited downtown, so a parking lot shared by baseball and football is attractive.

But focus on the Inner Harbor has had a downside, said Craig Purcell, an architect for FRCH Design Worldwide who moved from Baltimore to Cincinnati last summer.

''For all of the Inner Harbor's shining success ... it has also succeeded in gutting business in its historic core by making the waterfront edge the preferential area for development,'' he said.

Cincinnati can learn from this mistake by connecting Fountain Square with the riverfront as it develops stadiums, Mr. Purcell said.

Dreaming in Detroit

The most dramatic NFL move downtown is the Lions' decision to build in Detroit's entertainment district, next to a new Tigers stadium. The Lions will abandon their suburban Silverdome after nearly 20 years.

The district, around Woodward Avenue, has been ignited by the renovation of the Fox Theatre - owned by the Ilitch family, which also owns the Tigers - a restored movie palace that's now one of the top-grossing theaters in the nation and host to Broadway shows.

''The thing we're most excited about is being part of the rebirth of the city of Detroit,'' said Tom Lewand, director of stadium development for the Lions. ''The downtown area in Detroit within the next five years is going to be as vibrant as any in the U.S. I know that sounds like a mouthful, but it's truly amazing.''

As in Baltimore, the side-by-side stadiums make financial sense. There is one parking lot to build, one set of street improvements to make. The People Mover public transportation system stops a block and a half south of the stadium site.

Tigers' spokesman Tyler Barnes said the site is a sure bet for the team because people are accustomed to visiting the Woodward district.

''People are already comfortable being in the area,'' he said. ''There are already reasons to come early and stay late.''

Both teams slight Broadway site

Published Dec. 2, 1996.